Sunday, April 21, 2013

Michael Haneke | La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher)

dreaming of what they don’t have

Michael Haneke (screenplay, based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek), Michael Haneke (director) La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher) / 2001, USA 2002
When Michael Haneke’s powerful film The Piano Teacher first opened in 2002 in the US, numerous American critics described it as “depraved,” “unwatchable,” and “deeply disturbing,” even while saluting the director’s masterful approach and the wonderful acting of the film’s star, Isabelle Huppert (the film was awarded the top prizes for directing and its two major actors at Cannes). But even the mostly perceptive reviewer Roger Ebert could not quite put his finger on what was behind Huppert’s figure, Erika Kohut’s bizarre sexual behavior.

      Looking back on this film nearly 11 years to the date of its Los Angeles premiere—and having witnessed now four others of Haneke’s brilliant films—this work seems far less shocking and ambiguous than as it appeared  to its first US audiences. One might even describe this movie, filmed in Freud’s home city of Vienna, as a textbook study of Freudian study of sexual frustration and perversion.

      Having devoted her entire life to a musical career as a piano concert performer, Erika has had little experience, it is clear from the beginning of this work, with the opposite sex. She lives with a domineering woman (Annie Girardot), not so very different from the kind of stage mother portrayed in the American musical, Gypsy, a somewhat unrefined woman who, even though her daughter is now in her 40s, continues to control her life and rule over her career and teaching responsibilities. When her daughter does not arrive home on time, the mother enters her closet to destroy any new dresses she may have purchased. This tyrant even warns her insecure daughter not to let her students become better interpreters of music than she is. The husband of this monstrous mother has unsurprisingly gone mad. Erika painfully is forced to share her mother’s bed.

     We soon discover that Erika’s only experience with sex has been through late-night visits to a Vienna porn theater, where, after being ogled by the male denizens, she locks herself in a cabinet to watch violent porn tapes. At one point she takes the blade of a razor to her vagina, bleeding into the bathtub. Upon another occasion she stealthfully visits a drive-in theater on foot to observe the young couples engaging in automobile sex. With such a violent view of sexuality is hardly surprising that she steers clear of males, describing them as pigs, while simultaneously having all the sexual urges of a woman of her age.

     If her life is devoted to music, particularly to the mournful love songs of Schubert and Schumann—one song repeated throughout the film begins with dogs barking and people “dreaming of what they don’t have,” typifying the “love, death, transformation” themes of his famed leider, some of them written in the same year when Schubert began experiencing the symptoms of syphilis—Erika clearly gets little joy from the music she so elegantly performs. As a teacher at the Vienna Conservatory of Music, she tyrannizes her students as her mother does her, demanding they suffer in order to become great musicians. She is particularly mean to a rather plain looking girl, Anna Schober (Anna Sigalevitch), whose entire has been given over to piano-playing; her mother reveals to Erika that the girl practices eight hours a day. Even her lessons are, as Erika expresses it, a bore.

     At a recital in which Erika plays in a wealthy Vienna apartment, the musician meets handsome if slightly haughty young man, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) the nephew of the apartment’s owner. During a buffet discussion he speaks somewhat intelligently about her performance, but she remains wary. He is evidently studying engineering at the university, but a piano performance by him after the buffet demonstrates that he has true musical talent as well, and despite Erika’s dismissal of him, Huppert conveys Erika’s deeper and darker attraction. Soon after, Walter applies to study piano under Erika. At the audition he clearly wows the other faculty members, while Erika votes against him. When he permitted to enter the conservatory and shows up to his first lesson, he reveals his passion for her, that he is attracted to the older woman like—in a rather unfortunate metaphor—like a “nut to a bolt.”  His forthright approach clearly takes her aback, while, nonetheless, revealing her hidden desires. Their conversation represents the tensions between them:

 Erika Kohut: Schubert's dynamics range from scream to whisper not loud to soft. Anarchy hardly seems your forte. Why not stick to Clementi? Schubert was quite ugly. Did you know? With your looks, nothing can ever hurt you.

Walter Klemmer: Why destroy what could bring us together?

Erika Kohut: Mannerism is no...

Walter Klemmer: [interrupting her] Why can't I look at you? Because if I do, I won't resist the temptation to kiss you on the neck. May I kiss you on the neck?

 [she walks away]

     Soon after, at a rehearsal of the conservatory’s Jubilee performance, the young Anna Schober arrives late, having had diarrhea through her fear of Erika’s tyranny. The teacher calms her student, only to watch Walter, helping to set up the next set, speaking to Anna and even eliciting from her a small laugh. Watching Walter, serving as page-turner to Anna, Erika exits the auditorium, obviously jealous of even the clumsy friendship Walter has offered his fellow student. Suddenly, Erik breaks a wineglass, spilling the broken pieces into Anna’s coat pocket. The rehearsal closes, with the inevitable: Anna, thrusting her hands into the pocket, is severely cut, unable to perform at the Jubilee event—or perhaps ever again. While Erika has been jealous, we also comprehend that she may have unintentionally saved the young girl from an empty life like her own, a world in which she has given all to her musical avocation.    

     When Walter observes her escaping the scene, he follows her to a bathroom where Erika has tried to hide herself away. Leaping over the stall to bring her out, Walter forces her out, where she falls into a passionate embrace with young man, but refusing to allow him to touch her. She, in complete control, performs fellatio without allowing him to ejaculate, demanding he keep his erect penis in place while facing her. While he pleads with her, she terrorizes the student with threats that she will never let him touch her again, before finally jacking him off, demanding

that any further contact will be through her own methods, communications and letters.

      So begins a series of manipulative actions in which she requests that Walter, in her own apartment with the bedroom barricaded against her mother, tie her up, gag her, and force her into sexual acts much like the ones she has witnessed on the porn tapes and the magazines she has hidden under her bed. Reading her written requirements, the young Walter is disgusted with her S & M demands. He proclaims he loves her, but wants no involvement with such degradations, emphatically dismissing her vision of sexual life:

Erika Kohut: Do you like me calling you darling?
Walter Klemmer: It's absolutely marvelous.
Erika: You must be patient. I'll give you all the games, we'll play all the games you want.
Walter: You know you really stink? Sorry, you stink so much, no one will ever come close to you. You'd be better leave town until you don't stink so bad. Rinse your mouth more often, not just when my cock makes you puke.

 When Erika continues to make her demands, Walter leaves her, but utterly frustrated and mentally “snapping,” returns to her home, locking the mother into her room while he beats and rapes Erika, proving to her, obviously, that men are “pigs,” along with forcing to comprehend that the fantasy world she seeks, played out in reality, like everything else in her life, is without any pleasure.

     Walter leaves her permanently. As she and her mother attend the Conservatory event, where she will now accompany the Schubert song in her student Anna’s place, she witnesses Walter arriving with others, before secretly exciting the hall, pulling a long kitchen-knife from her bag and plunging it into her breast. It may be only a symbolic death, instead of the real death German myth so often requires of its lovers (I am listening even at the moment of writing this to a New York Metropolitan performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre), but even if she survives, we recognize it is the beginning of her complete undoing. She has, if nothing else, symbolically committed suicide, as if replying to Schubert’s next phrase in his song: “What is this foolish desire?”


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